When race, fandom and pop-music dollars collide

Alexandra Reid never felt like she belonged.

As one of the first Black Korean pop music artists, she struggled to fit in, to be seen as more than a gimmick, as a “real stride for K-pop.” In the two years Reid was based in Seoul, signed to the girl group BP Rania, she says she felt like a “fish out of water,” with no translator, no guidance on how to do basic things like order food or turn on the air conditioner and no warning of how she might be perceived by South Koreans, like when a taxi driver screamed at her and refused to drive her home. In addition, she performed live onstage only once.

Her sense of isolation as a Black artist within the genre is emblematic of the growing pains of K-pop, as the multibillion-dollar industry is pressed to respond to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement and overcome the missteps of the past.

“Their music is Black-inspired,” Reid says. “It’s one thing to talk, and it’s another thing to literally put your money where your mouth is.”

Diverse, international fans who have been key to the genre’s success by pushing albums on social media are now harnessing their power in support of Black Lives Matter, staging online protests, hijacking hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter, spamming a Dallas police app looking to identify protesters and even reserving rally seats in Tulsa meant for President Trump’s supporters.

They are also trying to force K-pop into its own reckoning, pushing artists and music companies to take a stand for racial justice, and shining a light on the complicated history of a genre that is based on Black culture. K-pop’s past is rife with cases of stars wearing cornrows and braids as well as blackface.

When artists and labels are silent on Black Lives Matter, said K-pop fan Davonna Gilpin, they are “complicit in our suffering.”

After “profiting so much off of Black culture,” Gilpin said, “how are you guys new to this conversation when we have been trying to have this conversation with you for years and you just never wanted to engage?”

So Gilpin petitioned SM Entertainment, one of the biggest labels in K-pop, to take a stand for Black Lives Matter online with the hashtag #SMBLACKOUT. A week later it did, saying the label stood with its Black collaborators, friends and fans.

“I felt like with [the] Black Lives Matter movement, it was time for them to step up and say something. Especially because, all these groups or artists tour here, so they are very aware of how much of their American fan base is Black,” Gilpin said.

But it’s not always easy — especially when fellow fans aren’t supportive, said K-pop fan Eric Perry.Fellow K-pop fans would “make our problem seem invalid,” said Perry, a 23-year-old African American student at the University of Maryland who belongs to a K-pop dance crew. “Slowly but surely, the conversation is opening up more. … However, I still feel like more work has to be done.”

Blackpink fans chose to pay their respects to #BlackLivesMatter” instead of promoting “Sour Candy,” a collaboration with Lady Gaga that came out days after George Floyd’s death. But while their online petitions made headlines, the popular girl group’s single still debuted at No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100, Blackpink’s first Top 40 hit.

As a result, the genre’s few Black artists have also grown more vocal. About a week after Floyd’s death, Reid joined other Black K-pop YouTube stars for a Black Lives Matter fundraiser, raising over $5,000 in a couple of hours.

Reid said she felt disappointed when her former label DR Music Entertainment did not issue a statement about the protests.

“It feels like if you cared about the diversity, then I would hope that you would take a stand at this time,” she said.

Philip YJ Yoon, executive director of DR Music Entertainment, acknowledged the challenges for Reid and other Black artists trying to break into K-pop and said he supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I can see online there are some people who call our company a racist company. If we were a whole bunch of racists, we would never hold auditions for foreign trainees. Also, I don’t think foreign trainees would dare to try joining our company,” said Yoon, who is reintroducing Reid’s former group BP Rania as Black Pearl with Senegalese singer Fatou Samba. “We have had difficulties, but we know our company is one of a few companies that can do this because we are very open to cultural differences and put most effort to fix any problems.”

Other artists who started in K-pop, like CL of 2NE1 and Jay Park of 2PM, also expressed their support for BLM.

“Me being inspired by Black culture, aside me having Black homies, aside just as a man and a human being … to think what if that was my dad, or uncle or homie makes me sick to my stomach,” said Park, who donated $10,000 to Black Lives Matter. A Washington native, the R&B and hip-hop artist was the first Asian American artist to sign with Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation.

After their fans flooded hashtags with #BlackARMYsequality and #BlackARMYsMatter, supergroup BTS and their label, Big Hit Entertainment, donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter.

“We realized we had a lot of power in our fandom and a lot of energy that wanted to focus on doing good,” said Erika Overton, a 40-year-old Black American who does outreach and communications for BTS fan collective One In An Army, which coordinated a campaign to match the group’s donation.

Keeping K-pop accountable

Unlike some other fandoms, K-pop followers are relatively diverse, said Ashley Hinck, assistant professor in communications at Xavier University, who studies fandom and social activism. There are no reliable surveys, but industry experts say a large share of attendees at last year’s KCON fan convention and concert series were Asian and Hispanic, with much smaller shares White or Black.

It is tough to break out the number of American fans, but they make up a respectable percentage after Asian countries and Brazil, according to the music data analytics tool Chartmetric. American viewers made up around 13 percent of the 33 million YouTube subscribers of BTS.

This American fan base has been instrumental in gaining mainstream acceptance for the genre. When the Video Music Awards shut out BTS from the pop category last year, relegating them to a separate K-pop category, BTS fans launched an online campaign. This year, BTS was included in pop, which they won.

Korean American rappers are also putting pressure on the industry to change.

“It’s personal to me because I want my kid to live in a world where people aren’t judged or discriminated against due to his skin color,” said Tiger JK, who grew up in Los Angeles and is considered one of the forefathers of Korean hip-hop and is married to a Korean-Black rapper. “I’ve experienced discrimination myself growing up in the States.”

But the challenge is to instigate real change, beyond statements and donations, in an industry that has been averse to politics.

“Unlike in the West where music artists often express their political views, for most K-pop acts, they are extremely cautious about singing or talking about topical political issues as they have traditionally been considered off-limits, taboo subjects,” said Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, an agency that specializes in the export of Korean music. “The risks are too high because the negative backlash of being on the ‘wrong’ side of a sensitive political issue can lead to swift and severe repercussions. It leads to bans, boycotts and canceled careers.”

K-pop’s roots

American pop with its foundation in Black music first found its way to South Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s, said Michelle Cho, assistant professor of popular culture in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.

Korean musicians eventually started learning American pop music to entertain U.S. service people. And in creating their own version of pop, especially hip-hop, they started integrating everything together with the Korean language. Their process of creating idols is also akin to the Motown method of training singers.

“The innovativeness of K-pop is that it is able to incorporate so many different genres and put them together, often in the same song,” Cho said. “The way that that happens is through a kind of like collage, where they’re basically blending every trend that global pop music is using right now … including EDM [electronic dance music] and a lot of Latin pop.”

For some fans, like Reid and Gilpin, that produces more relatable pop music than Disney or “American Idol,” Cho said.

“There’s an element of innocent whimsy and indulgence that Western pop lost ages ago,” said Natalie White, a Black music video game and film composer, whose viral K-pop covers on YouTube led to appearing on South Korean television. “Plus, it’s sensory overload — bright colors, high drama, intense dancing and pretty faces.”

Growing pains

But in growing the genre, the tributes to Black music have occasionally veered into racial insensitivity, said Christian Oh, who founded an Asian talent show in Washington, D.C., called Kollaboration DC and taught classes on ethnic studies and social media at the University of Maryland.

In a video from the ’90s, the founder of one of the biggest K-pop labels, J.Y. Park of JYP Entertainment, sang with backup dancers in blackface.

In 2013, when Big Bang rapper G-Dragon posted an Instagram photo wearing a hoodie in blackface, many interpreted the selfie as a reference to Trayvon Martin. His rep later apologized, saying it was a “huge misunderstanding.”

And in May, BTS member Suga provoked online backlash by sampling a speech by cult leader Jim Jones, who led more than 900 followers, including many Black women, in a mass suicide in 1978. In a statement, BTS’s label said the band “lacked the understanding of the historical and social situations relating to the sample,” apologizing to “those who have been hurt or felt uncomfortable.” The track was deleted and a revised version was rereleased.

The relationship between Black and Korean communities has been complicated, said Oh, one fraught with misunderstanding and outright racism, based on stereotypes from movies like “Boyz n the Hood” and the 1992 Los Angeles riots when Korean stores in Black neighborhoods were targeted and African American teenager Latasha Harlins was killed by a Korean storekeeper.

As a result, it has been challenging for Black artists to find a place in K-pop.

It was a passion and dream, said dedicated K-pop fan Shervonne Brown, who tried auditioning for one of the biggest K-pop labels, JYP Entertainment, in New York in 2009, despite its rule, which stated that contestants had to be Asian. While judges were impressed she could sing in Korean, she never received a callback. The next year, she said, that rule was dropped, so she tried again.

“K-pop is becoming extremely international and welcoming a lot of fans from everywhere,” said Brown, a 28-year-old vocalist from Arlington, Va., who used to be managed by Oh. “It would be smart to have a more diverse team within the company so they can point out what is wrong and what is right. Because when you only have one perspective, it’s very difficult to be able to do things like that.”

Making Black Lives Matter for K-pop

So despite growing demands for change from K-pop fans, it remains to be seen whether there will be concrete action among labels and artists beyond statements and donations.

“It’s not clear that that’s going to go any further than making a few statements,” said Claire Jean Kim, professor of political science and Asian American Studies at the University of California at Irvine. “The fans themselves have gone past that, but will that become organized into some kind of coherent political force, pursuing a particular left agenda, a racially progressive agenda? That remains to be seen.”

Real change would have to be at the company level, not just with fans, to “lay off cultural appropriation, educate themselves and be more sensitive with the imagery they choose to present themselves to the world,” said White. “If you like what we do creatively, hire us, or find ways to promote, invest in the communities that inspire you.”

Because Black Lives Matter for K-pop has come to mean not only respecting the background of customers but also of their music.

“As K-pop has evolved into a more multilingual, multicultural and multinational genre with growing global appeal, there is less cultural tolerance for cultural ignorance in the local music industry,” said Cho, president of an agency that specializes in the export of Korean music. “Regardless if it’s on the record or off the cuff, trying too hard to be cool, cute or funny by saying or doing something racially ignorant, racially insensitive or racially intolerant is an instant formula for failure for K-pop artists.”


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